History - Alderney Road Jewish Cemetery
With kind permission of Marcus Roberts Jtrails.org.uk© Marcus Roberts, www.jtrails.org.uk
The Alderney Road Cemetery is a Jewish heritage site of the first importance. It was the first Askenasi cemetery after the resettlement and contains the resting places of most of the great names of Askenasi, Anglo-Jewish community. Their burial places are often marked by monuments of considerable historical merit.
Beyond this, the cemetery is in my experience a special place. Other than the fact that it is a green and pleasant oasis of secluded charm in the East End, it is a place to seek and find genuine spiritual inspiration. Many visitors I have spoken to share the same experience - which is quite contrary to that of many of the desolate necropoli dotted about London.
The Alderney Road cemetery found its origins in the increasing immigration of Ashkenazim to this country in the 17th century. They came and lived along side their Sephardic brethren who allowed them for some time to be buried in their cemetery. However the numbers involved and the fact that many of the Tudescos were poor and were buried at the charge of the Spanish and Portuguese Community meant that in 1693 the Elders of the community had to ask the Ashkenazim to make their own arrangements.
The Ashkenazim did not organise their cemetery straight away but in 1696 they founded their own Chevra kadisha or burial society which was an important step towards founding their own ground. The ground was finally purchased by Benjamin Levy in 1697, who purchased a 999 lease of a plot of garden-land from Captain Nathaniel Owen.
Levy and his wife were both to be buried in the ground and they were followed by others. Eventually the cemetery needed to be extended, which was effected in 1749, when land within the Three Colt Yard was purchased. This gave the cemetery its unusual modern configuration. The old and new plots are narrowly joined at one corner and a narrow channel gives access from one side to the other. The cemetery is a less well ordered affair than the Spanish and Portuguese which has utterly regular rows and plots.
From an early date there was a house for a cemetery keeper. There was at the time of my visit a residential caretakers living in a house on the site, with a very large dog for company and which has what amounts to its own virtually small private park for its walks! The cemetery was finally closed in 1852, but it is still well maintained and cared for in contrast to many other redundant cemeteries.
A host of historic figures of the Jewish community lie within the walls of the cemetery. Fortunately an exemplary survey of the cemetery was carried out by the late Bernard Susser and his two Israeli assistants and the hard work of tracking down and deciphering memorials is largely removed by his plan of the cemetery and description of its residents. His plan and the knowledgeable assistance of the residential caretaker make an exploration of the cemetery quite straight forward.
Bernard Susser's Survey was completed not long before his sad death. It may be worth the visitor picturing the late rabbi in the last Summer-phase of his life. His was vividly described to me by the caretaker, happily sat in a deck chair, in the long summer afternoons, among the tombstones completing what was to be his last work.
The memorials in the cemetery are of interest for a number of reasons, including the fact that many are evidently taken from the stock of Christian monumental masons and have been appropriated for Jewish use. This accounts for the wide variety of funereal motifs, such as the skull and cross bones, drapery, hour glasses, grave diggers tools, the axe felling the tree and the like, that are typical of contemporary Church cemeteries. There are of course many with purely Jewish motifs such as the Cohanic hands and Levitical ewers. Susser notes the occurrence of a few Eastern European emblems and decorations such as a pair of hares and an open book.
The quality of the Hebrew inscriptions is very high and attractive. There are many lengthy inscriptions following a number of contemporary formulae for such things. Most of the early inscriptions are entirely in Hebrew, but there are bi-lingual inscriptions or part bi-lingual from a comparatively early period. These latter inscriptions are entirely in Hebrew except for the age which is given in English. There is occasionally a name given in English as well, such as M. David Jacob, who died in 1784, or both name and age, such as Jacob Aaron, aged 34 year, in 1793.
The oldest legible inscription surviving today dates from 1724 and is to Trever Abraham. One which has a certain impact is that of Moses ben Mehahem, whose Hebrew inscription opens with "Here lies a Jew! a Jew!..."
A number of the tombstones give the place of origin of the deceased. These give some insight into the Eastern European origins of the early Ashkenazi settlers. There are to be found, Atziplotz, Hichburg, Ratberg, Bohemia, Prague, Hamburg, Lohzin, Linitz, Livni, Einhorn, Odessenya, the State of Shleiya, Ichri, Radom, and Kelin.
The survey of the cemetery also notes that many of the tombstones carry the name of early Ashkenazi benefit and burial societies, who covered the cost of burials and memorials. Susser found seven early societies recorded from the late 18th century. These included such as the Cheverah Shomerie Emunim (the Guardians of the Faith)
Notable occupants of the cemetery include many figures already mentioned elsewhere in the course of this guide. There are several members of the Levy and Hart family, major benefactors of the Ashkenazi community and leaders of the community. A number of these figures are recited on a modern commemorative stone set near the entrance of the cemetery in 1939. There is another memorial plaque set on the Tercentary of the founding of the cemetery in 1997.
Moses Hart and his daughter Judith Levy (the "Queen of Richmond green") both founders of the Great Synagogue. Aaron Hart the first Rabbi of the Great Synagogue, from 1709-56. The second rabbi of the Great Synagogue, David Tevele Schiff, also lies in the cemetery. How he became the first "Chief Rabbi" of England has been related in connection with the dispute at Portsmouth. Elias Levy, another benefactor of the Great Synagogue is in the cemetery.
There are members of the Franks family - Aaron Franks a founder of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, and his daughter Phila Franks a society beauty of her day.
The notorious Samuel Falk, the Baal Shem of London lies just within the walls of the cemetery. His tombstone, whose translation is attached to the wall, is less than modest about the man. His tomb still attracts pilgrims with a charitable estimation of his integrity.
A more modest tomb relates to Rabbi Saul Berlin, the son of Hart Lion, Chief Rabbi 1756-64. He is described in rabbinic terms as Mazeh ben Mazeh "A sprinkler son of a sprinkler", a phrase denoting a scholar who is a son of a scholar. In Berlin's will he stipulated (for reasons he would not disclose) that he should be buried as he was found, in a forest or a place well away from the graves of other people!
The tombs of well known Jewish doctors are to be found, such as Nathan Mitchell (d.1785) and Hart Wessels (d. 1767).
Lesser figures of interest include that of Nathan ben Mordechai Ire-land (d. 1795) who was for 50 years a watchman of the cemetery. The semi-circular surscript opens with "At this stone the guard is guarded"
The earliest interments are in the first (north) section as one enters the cemetery. The larger proportion of the worthy and famous are along the central path of the old section and have many of the more elaborate chest tombs.